Nearly 400 community leaders and entrepreneurs gathered on Jan. 31 at the Embassy Suites by Hilton for Explore Asheville’s annual partner event, “The Year Ahead.” Led by BCTDA President and CEO of Explore Asheville Vic Isley, four panels of local business owners and community leaders highlighted upcoming developments and events.
To start the program, Isley noted the importance of tourism to the local economy.
“In 2022, visitors contributed $3 billion to our community and local businesses,” Isley said. “Visitor spending is our strongest export, and the authority’s role is to inspire visitors to bring net new dollars through the front door of a wide variety of local businesses to sustain the livelihoods of our residents. … Quite simply, a city of 95,000 or a county of 270,000 can’t solely support the breadth of creativity within our community without the expenditures of people from people who are outside of it.”
Isley highlighted the Tourism Product Development Fund, a community grant funded through Buncombe County’s 6% occupancy tax. In 2023, the TPDF fund supported three major projects: $1.53 million to the City of Asheville to upgrade Harrah’s Cherokee Center – Asheville; $500,000 to the WNC Agricultural Center for an outdoor covered equestrian arena; and $4 million to Buncombe County for new turf, lighting and a playground at the Enka Recreation Destination.
A sponsor from each of the three organizations was presented a ceremonial check.
The TDA also gave five community members the Asheville Superstar Award, an annual award that recognizes individuals who have worked with the TDA and Explore Asheville to support their initiatives and events. The TDA recognized Buncombe County Sheriff Quentin Miller; Asheville Police Department interim Chief Mike Lamb; owner of J. Chong Eats, J. Chong; director of sales for Parks Hospitality Group Jack Benton; and creative director of Curve Theory Reggie Tidwell.
Community panelists unveil some 2024 highlights
From art to history, local leaders and business owners announced new draws for area tourism.
Candace Reilly, executive director of the N. C. Glass Center, says a new facility in Black Mountain will help accommodate its rapid growth and give tourists another site to appreciate local artwork in addition to its River Arts District center.
“We have grown so quickly in the past almost eight years because of what we do. We work with glass, we make art, which is fun. We economically support over 70 artists,” Reilly said. “[The Black Mountain facility] is basically going to double our footprint, allowing us to serve more artists and tourists. It will also allow us to go into more rural communities for youth programming.”
Reilly says the new location will open in August.
Melody Rigdon, vice president of marketing for Biltmore, also had news related to glass art. Dale Chihuly, a world-renowned glass artist, will be returning to showcase his work this spring in the Amherst exhibit center at Deerpark, the estate’s signature event area.
“One of the really neat features of the exhibit is a Persian glass ceiling that guests will be able to walk under as they enter the ballroom,” says Rigdon. “It is going to be different, but it’s also really unique and spectacular.”
The exhibit will run from Monday, March 25, through Sunday, Jan. 5.
On the historical front, Catherine Mitchell, executive director of Riverfront Development Group, said the organization is developing a digital museum to commemorate Stephens Lee High School, which opened in 1923 as the only public high school for Black residents in Asheville. The school closed in 1965.
“The museum will incorporate stories, memorabilia and anything else that we can get from the students who attended the school in the five surrounding counties.” Mitchell said. “We think that this will be something that Asheville, Buncombe County and Western North Carolina has never seen before.”